Bill Bernbach, founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach, once said: “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”
That was back in the sixties, long before mass media took on the massive form it is today. If Bernbach were alive now, would he still see us shaping society? Or would he tell us we’ve vulgarized it?
An associate of Bernbach’s, the brilliant copywriter, Bob Levenson, saw the vulgarization happening even back then. In an ad summarizing media in general, he wrote: “We have the power and skill to trick people. Or so we think. But we’re wrong. We can’t fool any of the people any of the time.”
Both men spent their careers trying to change perceptions, forming what would become some of the most intelligent and honest advertising in history. Yet one man saw mass media at a crossroads. The other saw us playing with the truth. As he wrote: “If we play tricks with the truth, we die.”
Well, we haven’t died yet. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t die. Let’s just say we’re a hair away.
Every blog, every speech, every piece of communication shapes our society. But do we see it as a responsibility? Or do we still believe we can trick people into believing things?
We’re all guilty of trickery, or what Amy Winehouse called “fuckery.”
Think of when Google decided to fine companies for including keywords in their SEOs that didn’t exist in the content. Then Google had to fine itself three times for doing the same thing.
It’s not that we don’t believe in integrity. If we could lift society to a higher level with the truth, we’d do it. Trouble is, we’re a society used to lies and exaggerated promises. In fact, we’ve been fooled by more people telling us they’re honest than people telling us they’re liars.
In an article called “Is Advertising an Art of Lying,” it describes how we’re exposed to 3000 brands a day. When there are only two or three brands competing, they don’t have to exaggerate or lie. The market can be divided comfortably between them.
Then two or three new entries come along, and suddenly it’s a war. You have to protect your audience. Companies don’t go out of their way to lie. They go out of their way to protect market share.
We see it all the time, yet we don’t feel particularly vulgarized. We take it with a grain of salt. We’re willing to admit that Rogaine might bring back a few buds of hair, but nobody expects to look like Tarzan.
When car companies talk about reaching “a new level of automotive excellence,” we still go out and shop around. It’s not that we don’t believe them. We just figure all cars have a new level of automotive excellence. Who launches a new car without it?
Maybe we should call it “acceptable fuckery,” meaning we’re not fooled, but we need a car just the same. Just like we need food and entertainment and any number of electronic devices. We accept vulgarization, but we don’t feel “brutalized” by it. If anything, we feel mildly amused.
When Levenson said, “We can’t fool any of the people any of the time,” I’m sure he figured we’d smarten up, maybe even rebel.
What we did instead was learn to enjoy the entertainment value of exaggerated truths and hidden lies.
On the subway one day, I heard a group of school kids talking about carrier plans. “Yeah, like we’re getting unlimited long distance for free,” one of them laughed. “As long as you’re calling after three in the morning!”
It soon turned into a discussion about who got taken less.
Have carrier plans become the training ground for young people, not learning how to separate truth from lies, but lies from lies?
That might be the greatest vulgarization of all. When lies become a hoot, where do we go next?
Levenson said: “No donkey chases the carrot forever.” He believed we’d grow indifferent to empty promises. Perhaps he underestimated how willing we are to accept mass media the way it is.
One of the most telling comments came from John Swainton, Chief of Staff of the New York Times. “There is not one of you who would dare to write his honest opinion,” he said to his colleagues at his retirement party.
“The business of a journalist now is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, fall at the feet of Mammon and sell himself for his daily bread. We are tools, vessels of rich men behind the scenes, we are jumping jacks. They pull the strings; we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are the properties of these men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”
Now there’s a man who doesn’t see lies being a hoot. Whether his colleagues felt any remorse about the state of journalism is a different story.
If journalists are destroying truth and marketers are exaggerating it, maybe we’re not so much dying as becoming what Pink Floyd described as “Comfortably Numb.”
We could bottom out, and the new Bernbachs of the world will start shaping society again.
As I said earlier, we haven’t died. That’s not to say we couldn’t. Bernbach saw us at a crossroads. Levenson saw us growing indifferent to empty promises. Will we continue to be vulgarized? Or will we lift ourselves up to a higher level?
It’s really up to us.
Where do you think we’re going? Are we at a crossroads? Or are we “Comfortably Numb”? Let me know at: email@example.com
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. For more details, go to Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press.